Author Pearl Duncan doesn’t give up easily. Her upcoming book is the remarkable saga of her quest to discover her African lineage.  Duncan’s odyssey takes her to Jamaica, the birthplace of her parents – and eventually to Ghana, West Africa, home of some of her distant relatives. 

 Duncan’s story is unusual (and fascinating) because she used cutting-edge technology (DNA research), as well as linguistic evidence, historical records, folklore, nicknames – and years of dogged persistence to pull it off. 

“The tale took root when she (Duncan) was a little girl in New York, listening to the linguistic twists of her Jamaican-born parents,” writes Allan Boyle, in an MSNBC News article that Duncan has posted on her site. “If she started making a mess, she was told not to “chaka-chaka” the room.  If she ate too fast, her mother reminded her not to “nyam” her food.  Her mother’s nickname was “Dockyi,” her father’s was “Pari.”  

In another article by Maggie Rotermund for Gannett News Service, Duncan is quoted as saying: “My parent’s nicknames were so alien to me.  They didn’t match up with any kind of English names.”   

Duncan goes on to say that anyone (armed with determination and the right tools) can conduct the same type of research. “The first thing is to get rid of all of your preconceived notions.  Listen to everything.  Things your parents and grandparents say, songs they would sing; there can be clues in all sorts of things.” 

I was impressed by Duncan’s tenacity, and after reading about her phenomenal success, I couldn’t stop thinking about all those rich and wonderful nicknames and phrases in the Virgin Islands that are “begging” to be researched. 

So I called my Uncle Gerry and told him that our opportunity to be remembered favorably in history had arrived, and he was to provide me with a list of Crucian nicknames as soon as possible.   

Uncle’s list arrived via email the following day:  “Contractor Lanter,” “Parson Dark Night,”  “Gubble Lip,” “Mampie Torres,” “Skeece,” “Percy Pigtail,” “Beep Beep,” “Peep-Sight,” “Bruck Stomach,” “Bite Head,” “Bone-Head,” “Tono Casher,” “Box ah Sand,” “Joe Micie,” “Joe-Geese,” “Shoe Leather,” “Dynamite Dan,” “Kink Barnes,” “Puelte,” “Lile Derricks,” “Father Found Out,” “Polo,” “Crown Prince,” “Genics,” “Spur,” “Something Drop,” “Bopps Skiddie,” “Alex Ton.” “Tight Shoes,” “Big Foot Daniel,” “Paddie Moore,” “Dagan Wolf,” “Dove” “Blinky,” “Full Grown Rat,” “Bull Bitch,” “Pasture Bull,” “Willie White Cow,” “Boots and Shoeses” and “Sauce Me Down.” 

And so now that we have our list – the list that Pearl Duncan told us to get – the first list of Crucian nicknames to appear on the World Wide Web – a pertinent question arises. Could it really be true that important tidbits of our history might be “locked up” in some of these nicknames?  Who knows? It’s too early too tell.  And we must keep in mind what Duncan said: “Listen to everything,” and “get rid of all preconceived notions.” 

Uncle promises to send more names, but in the meantime, I suggest we roll up our sleeves and get started with what we have. I must begin by saying, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting “Contractor Lanter,” “Parson Dark Night,” or “Percy Pigtail.”  I’m afraid these gentlemen “came and went” before my time.  But I do know “Gubble Lip” and “Gravy.” They happen to be brothers; and they come from a family of fine softball players.  In fact, many of the folks on Uncle’s list were marvelous softball players -- demigods of the Caribbean until arthritis struck them down. 

Not surprisingly, Uncle list didn’t include the nickname “Million Dollar Donkey.”  That’s probably because “Million Dollar Donkey” was one of our cousins.  According to somewhat reliable sources, “Million Dollar Donkey” (or M.D.D. for short) was so named because he found a large sum of cash in the street and promptly turned it over to the church without keeping so much as a penny for himself. 

Some hailed M.D.D’s action as an act of great virtue (in the tradition of St. Augustine).  Others say it was an act of foolishness that has no parallel in modern history.  I stay out of this controversy.  It’s one of those futile arguments that tend to pit father against son, mother against daughter and nation against nation.  In the end, feelings are hurt, relationships are strained, and names are mysteriously deleted from wills.  So…let’s move on to a discussion of less controversial nicknames. 

I went to school with “Weasel,” “Wrecker,” and “Garlic Pum-Pum.”  “Garlic Pum-Pum” was nice – very nice indeed.  She earned her nickname because a sweet, comforting fragrance would arise from beneath her skirt ever so often.  I loved “Garlic Pum-Pum,” and I loved the fragrance she emitted. 

Some of my 5th grade classmates suggested that “Garlic Pum-Pum” might have been a man in her previous lifetime because she had tiny toes and massive legs.  I didn’t engage in such idle speculation then, and I refuse to do it now.  Whether or not “Garlic Pum-Pum” might have been a man in her previous incarnation is somewhat interesting on a metaphysical level, but it has nothing to do with the monumental task before us – getting better acquainted with our African roots.  Furthermore, there are too many problems brewing in our global village that must be addressed before we can allow ourselves the luxury of poking around in “Garlic Pum Pum’s” past. 

But our exploration of nicknames must continue.  Wynn “Wash” Charles, a percussionist and folklore specialist from Trinidad, once told me he was so fascinated by a Crucian nickname he heard, that he composed a song about it, called “Loose Me, No.”  It’s a song about a relationship that’s about to turn sour because Bunga suspects his sweetheart is having an affair with Galdo in Lower Bethlehem, St. Croix. 

In addition to nicknames, however, there are still smatterings of African words in the Virgin Islands and throughout the Caribbean that are worthy of further exploration. “Bakoba,” happens to be one of those words – it refers to a small variety of bananas that grows in the tropics.  In his book, They Came Before Columbus, Dr. Ivan Van Sertima discusses variations of this word in the chapter “Plants and Transplants.”  Could it be that bakoba is a derivative of the African word ba-koko? 

Yampee” is another word that is still alive and well. It refers to mucous in the eye. This word isn’t only utilized in the Virgin Islands.  While searching the Web, I found out that this word is also used in Trinidadian Creole. 

The word “ Yaya ” to the best of my knowledge is no longer used in the Virgin Islands, but it was during the childhood of Cariso master Leona Watson.  It means grandmother –- the word came to us from the Yoruba of Southwest Nigeria –- it still means grandmother in contemporary Yoruba.  And what about the word , Pa? Many elders, including Leona Watson, refer to roads as Pa. So, we hear expressions like “long pa” and “broad pa.”  Watson insists the word comes from an African dialect?  Does it really? I, for one, am dying to know. 

Ever so often, my father tells me he wants something to yinyam (eat). Puerto Ricans call okra, quingambo. And could the word that we sometimes use in the Virgin Islands for mosquito (mampee), also be of African origin?  Dr. Lezmore Emmanuel, a Virgin Islander who now walks among us in spirit, once said that some of our words and traditions come from the Twi-speaking people of Ghana, West Africa. 

I haven’t done any genealogical research but I applaud those who do. In learning more about those who came before us, we hope to learn more about ourselves.  The wide spread interest in genealogy is also a statement that material things, although important, cannot make us whole. Some part of us can only be filled by spirit and by a connection with our departed loved ones.  Faded photographs, old letters, and memories can mean so much. 

I still hear the booming laughter of my Godfather, Vincent Mason.  And I still see the mischievous glint in his eyes, the cigarette dangling from his lips, and the crisp, khaki-colored pants and shiny shoes that he often wore. The fellas called him “Cah-Cool,” and I admired him because he honed our softball skills, baked bread, took us swimming and made beautiful kites. I was 18 when a car accident took “Cah-Cool” away. How I would love to have a conversation with him now. 

Dr. Ivan Van Sertima travels the world in search of good conversations.  He’s an anthropologist, and anthropologists find “conversations” in unusual places. Dr. Van Sertima is the scholar that advanced the controversial theory that sea-faring Africans sailed to the Americas prior to Columbus.  Van Sertima also believes the petroglyphs engraved at the bottom of a waterfall at Reef Bay Valley, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands are remnants of an ancient conversation. 

Some scholars theorize the petroglyphs are the work of Pre-Columbian, Indians, but Dr. Van Sertima maintains we are witnessing an African script that was once used in Libya, Medieval Mali and by Tamarahaq Berbers.  The script has been deciphered by the Libyan Department of Antiquities, says Van Sertima. And it reads: “Plunge in to cleanse yourself.  This is water for purification before prayer.”


Audio Clip: Wyn Charles sings about nicknames and a relationship about to turn sour. Bunga suspects that his sweetheart, Hortense, is having an affair with Galdo.

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