Harlem Owner Carl Cassell's Rant: On Garveyism and Despots, Creativity , betting on one's self and why I am building my home out of shipping containers.
Prologue: Garveyism and Despots: the crazy runs deep.
I learned a new word today kakistocracy which means to be ruled by the worst people possible. My father and I speak on the phone at least twice per week and usually the conversation revolves around his health, his avocado trees - why the green lizards won't stop fucking with his prized avocados, and the state of Jamaican politics which is a true kakistocracy. Donald Trump's win however dominated our conversation from the get go and having just read an article titled "Trump's presidency is shaping up to be a kakistocracy: government by the worst possible people" (please read it, but not before bed) I took the opportunity to drop my expanded vocabulary on my dad.
"You sound like your grandfather", my father said, "that's the second time I've heard that word".
At 78 years old, all my father does now is care for his beloved trees and reads, in fact he has always been a voracious reader, some of my fondest childhood memories are of him checking in on me as I studied late at night while he took a break from his own reading to surprise the cockroaches in the kitchen with his trusted borax gun.
"You've heard that word before from Grandfather?", I asked quizzically. There was a short pause as he gathered his memories and then he told me of the time his father Samuel Cassell used it to describe the U.S. government in the 1950s during the McCarthy era when he, my father was a teenager. He logged it in his head and never heard it again until now.
For a person I never met I am awfully close to my grandfather Samuel Cassell. As a child while visiting my grandmother's house, there was always a large imposing picture of him in the living room, and whenever anyone spoke of him it was always with a reverence that changed the tone of the conversation, dignified awe.
Born on a mountain in 1886 on the south coast of Manchester Jamaica, an area of The island where the bones of one of the earliest group of maroons were found in a cave, and easily described as the root of the island where three mountain ranges rise suddenly out of the earth to level off at 4,500 ft. It was from this picturesque existence that my grandfather departed in the early 1990s and joined the thousands of Jamaicans who went to Panama to help dig the Panama Canal. He soon found work on a ship bound for the U.S. as a cook and arrived in Harlem in 1914 -Now you know why the restaurant is called Harlem.😉
Being a man of his time he was drawn to Marcus Garvey (born 1887) and Pan Africanism, The ideology whose main tenet is that the fate of all African peoples and countries are intertwined. At its core Pan-Africanism is a belief that African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny.
While living in Harlem he became a member of the U.N.I.A. and after 19 years watching his people suffer at the hands racist America he got on a boat and headed back to the rock on which he was born in 1933, met my grandmother at 47 and fathered 4 children with her.
The point I am making is this: Had Marcus Garvey not been imprisoned for mail fraud; Had The Black Star Line not been undermined to failure by newly formed FBI; Had J. Edgar Hoover not become concerned about "Negro Agitation"; Had Garvey not been deported to Jamaica in 1927, my grandfather may have never returned to the island. I owe my existence to that particular confluence of world events, to Garveyism and Despots.
Next year I turn 47 and the irony ( or my grandfather) is slapping me in the face saying,"WAKE THE FUCK UP CARL, the world is rapidly turning to shit right before your eyes, you need a plan".
Crazy? Hmmmmm, Who the fuck thought Donald Trump would be the next President of the USA. We are three weeks into the nightmare that our collective conscience dreamt up as fucking joke, "Haw Haw wouldn't it be funny if that lunatic won the Presidency".... Well, he did. Now to start, he just said "YOU'RE FIRED" to the Attorney General a Black Woman and replaced her with Jeff Sessions a man so blatantly Racist that even Republicans have a problem with him. In this one move he is saying to the world "How you like me now,....BITCH, welcome to the New/Old America.
It is at this confluence of world events that I find myself at 47 years of age, but, unlike my grandfather I can't just pick up and head back to the same rock that He and I were born on. I've got two businesses to run and most importantly 5 daughters (three of whom are teenagers) to deal with, try explaining that that shit to them, but like I said, I am awfully close to my grandfather, his journey is embedded in my DNA. Ten years ago when I was searching for a name for a restaurant that would define my journey I chose to call it Harlem because I felt like Toronto, then the fifth largest city in North America had finally gained the critical mass of creativity needed to propel it to international status. We are now the Fourth largest City in North America and growing every year and in that span of time I've also come into myself as a Father/Artist/ Entrepreneur as are many of you who are reading this😉. My vantage point has mostly been from my restaurant/studio on Queen St West, a space that's seen two different incarnations of my over active imagination in the past 15years.
THE BLACK STAR
Ten years ago, while I was building Harlem with my friends Derek Brawley and Samuel Keen our breaks from the act of physically building largely centred around concepts for buildings and of course smoking copious amounts of weed, tea and biscuits. Derky, as I call him was a banker turned restaurateur/carpenter, who had decided that the advice given by people who wear ties should never be taken seriously as ties choke the blood flow off to your brain rendering any advise spurious at best and has an inverse relationship with the complexity of the subject matter at hand. Armed with that knowledge he exited the banking world and bought a house across the street from me where we quickly became friends to this day. Samuel Keen (that's where the tea and biscuits came in) is an Englishman whose knowledge of all things is as finite as is his hands as a carpenter.
Shipping containers was the stuff of our fascination then, as we dreamt up ways to build them as structures. Ten years later, I am building the first residential home in Toronto out of them in the back of the building that now houses Harlem Underground.
As building modules go, shipping containers are among the most versatile as they can be modified and combined in a myriad of structurally sound ways, not to mention that they make great bunkers.
This structure that I am building will eventually become my home but it's significance and meaning to me harkens deep in the quantum soup of my DNA. It's been a challenge everyday this year as I severed two tendons in my left hand around this time last year. It took Five hours to re-attach the tendons, two months in a cast for me to start learning how to use my left hand again. In that time as stared at my immobile hand and wondered if I would ever use it again I could hear my Grandfather whisper, "Yes you will, this is your time".
In retrospect my injury at the beginning of the year was only a test to prepare me for the real challenges ahead. The day we dropped the containers in place I came out that night to walk through it and smoke a joint and as I pondered what I should name this ship I am building I heard him again, "Name it, The Black Star"...