art in all its forms

art in all its forms


A biographer in search of his father

Arnold Rampersad’s ties to mysterious ‘McGee’ column of 1940s

By Andre Bagoo

Arnold Rampersad
IN THE opening chapter of his biography of the great poet Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad notes Hughes once said, “children should be born without parents– if born they must be.” Rampersad – the acclaimed Trinidadian biographer – writes extensively about figures such as Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Jackie Robinson. Yet, arguably, a book is waiting to be written about Rampersad himself and his relationship with his father, one Jerome Ewart Rampersad.

“He was a scamp,” Arnold, the son, said last week Thursday as he delivered a lecture on Jerome. “Which is what John Babb called my father recently, although I intervened to say I thought he was more a thug than a scamp. He never allowed us to call him Jerome though he allowed other children he had later to call him daddy and so on.”

The event was a lecture organised by the group known as the Friends of Mr Biswas on the newspaper column, “Mc Gee”, to which Jerome has been tied. As Arnold made clear to the audience gathered at the AV Room of the NALIS on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, the Mc Gee column of the 1940s was very popular. At one stage it was said to have single-handedly sold the Evening News, the tabloid put out by the Trinidad Publishing Company. References to McGee appeared in calypsos at the time, including one by Lord Invader called “McGee”. Figures like Karl Hudson-Phillips appeared in it. Invader sang, “I’m trying to live peacefully because I don’t want McGee write about me.” The column and the newspaper were read at the sidelines of football matches.

“It was certainly widely-admired among certain segments of the population,” Arnold, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama for a lifetime of work,  said. “He would spin the stories in a particular style and people would find it on the whole a pleasure to read. I remember I read it with pleasure at a time when not every thing about my father pleased. (It) lead Trinidad journalism in a small but significant way to a fresh direction.”

But though wildly successful, the authorship of the column remains a mystery. In addition to Jerome, a series of persons have been tied to it including: Patrick Chokolingo; Lennox Raphael; Vernon Khelawan; Ewart Rouse; John Grimes; “a fella from down south, maybe his name was Alleyne”; and even, according to John Babb, “an unnamed young woman”.

The mystery of the authorship of McGee befits the mystery of the man Jerome Rampersad. He was born in 1917, as Geronimo Ewart Hernandez. His mother was Romana Hernandez, a woman of Venezuelan descent. It is surmised that his father was Christopher Rampersad, a “full-blooded Indian”, Presbyterian, school-teacher with “a multitude of descendants” (apparently including Junior Sammy).

“We know only a few facts of Jerome’s past, although there are people in this room who know more than I do, as usual,” Arnold said. Disappointingly, the name Geronimo was not in honor of the Apache hero, but rather Saint Jerome (Spanish-speaking Romana was a devout Roman Catholic).

In 1930, Jerome started work at the Port-of-Spain Gazette (later famous for the Ambard case) where he met Evelyn De Souza who had migrated from British Guyana.

“One day he left his job on the Gazette, got married and went back to the Gazette to finish his day’s work,” Arnold said. “There is much more I could tell you but I draw a curtain right there. In any event, the marriage was doomed after the birth of three children. Doomed and finished even before I, the third one, was born late in 1941.”

By 1945, Jerome had left the Gazette and had started at the Evening News, following the trail blazed by Seepersad Naipaul, father of VS Naipaul, to the Trinidad Publishing Company. Jerome developed a reputation as a trouble-maker and at one stage tried to organise a formal trade union for journalists.

For Arnold, the column played a role in shaping West Indian literature, even if indirectly. He linked its American, Damon Runyon-esque tone to, for example, VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street. It is likely that several persons wrote the column and that its tone, even if in homage to Runyon, tapped into a bigger cultural ferment which embraced the wave of Hollywood movies at the time, like those starring Bogart.

Whatever the case, the biographer argued McGee came at an incredible time. Said Arnold, “The 1940s represented the most volatile and transformative period of social change in the history of the island. The decade following World War II was, not coincidentally, characterised by social conflict of every kind. There was joblessness, illegal immigration, acute housing shortages, food rationing, racial friction, religious intolerance, erosion of moral and intellectual values. A new, exciting, challenging, puzzling and dangerous place. This was the precise, or maddeningly imprecise and volatile background against which Jerome Rampersad, allowed to do so by the Evening News, began to walk down the dimly-lit road to becoming McGee.”

The writer further stated, “As for my father, I have no recollection of him ever reading a book. But he must have read some. I know that I am going to offend people here. I don’t set out to be offensive. I’m just a biographer. Biography is having a jooking board and wash-tub set up in Woodford Square and you get the dirty linen washed away. Other kinds of biography is more like dry cleaning. There is no intermediate process that marks life.”

Jerome finished a short novel in 1962 that has never been published. He also introduced structural elements of writing fiction into his court reportage. He died, as Arnold discovered only last week, in 1978. Upon his death, the Evening News claimed his “last column” appeared inside the paper.

“He was close to destitution at that point and maybe the folks down at the Evening News took pity on him and allowed him to write,” Rampersad said. “But maybe not. I have no personal or family investment in this project whatsoever. This is not intended as a tribute to my father. Not interested. What’s left is the important part, understanding what was achieved.”

But if, as VS Naipaul once observed, the greatest way a writer can honor a person is by presenting them as they are, Arnold Rampersad may have, despite his protestations, already begun the process of paying tribute to his father and mysterious McGee.

from Sunday Newsday
April 19, 2015, p. 18