John F Kennedy at a press conference in August 1963. Photo: Getty
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Where were you when JFK was shot?

Bonnie Greer remembers how “Mom and Apple Pie America” came to an end with the assassination of John F Kennedy fifty years ago.

The question “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” is becoming one of those archetypal measures of age, place etc. There are more people now who can’t answer than who can because either they were too young or they weren’t born.  But I can answer. I know.

A lot has been said about us baby boomers, mainly because most of us are still alive. Humans on the whole have never lived as long and as healthy as us, nor been as wealthy and active. It was all set up to be like this by our parents. We were the hoped-for babies after the catastrophe of total war and genocide. Our births would erase the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and so we were given golden childhoods. We boomers were brought up in a sunny Fifties and early Sixties “everything-for-the-kids” time.

Fathers and mothers were just that – with all of the safety/coddling and security/overprotection those two words imply if you’re old enough to remember “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” or the original “Mickey Mouse Club” or Alfred Hitchcock scaring the hell out of everyone weekly on TV.

Black, white, Latino, rich, poor, no matter, all of our parents tried their best to make our lives as sweet and as safe as possible. Yes, we had the threat of atomic annihilation hanging over our heads – “duck and cover” and the shrill alarm that went off every Wednesday afternoon to tell us to prepare for “the Russians”.

Protecting us from Khrushchev and his minions was an old guy in the White House who was like a grandfather and his wife Mamie who wore pearls all of the time and smiled a lot. How could we know that President Eisenhower had been Supreme Allied Commander in WW2? We weren’t around then, so who cared? That made John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the Senator from Massachusetts mine and my fellow baby boomers’ first president.

We were kids and young teens during his campaign and so didn't know much about the politics. I’m from Chicago and my hometown played a huge part overtly and covertly (nothing’s ever straight forward in Chi-town ) in getting him elected. His picture was everywhere. I was a young black girl with a dad who’d grown up in “Mississippi goddamn” as Nina Simone called it so I watched the Civil Rights stuff in the south on TV with a particular interest.  

All that mattered and at the same time it didn’t.

JFK seemed to be a breath of fresh air, a new deal. Maybe he could bring equality – help little black kids like me go to school in the south without an escort from the National Guard. Plus he was young, cute, his wife “Jackie” was beautiful and young and wore fab clothes and they had a sweet little girl, Caroline, and Mrs JFK was about to have a baby. If you’re a typical teenage girl – and I was – what’s not to like?

I had just turned 15 the week before the assassination. Chicago is in the same time zone as Dallas. I was at school in the middle of a lesson, Latin, I think. It was a girls’ school, the last fee-paying school that our dad could afford. The following year I would have to transfer to the local high school, leaving all my girlfriends behind. I was very focused because I didn’t know what my education would be like after the following June. In addition, I was one of a handful of black girls there. It wasn’t easy.

Suddenly, we were all called to assembly. I walked past an open door and peered into the empty classroom. I saw one of the nuns crying. I had never seen that before. Not a good sign. Had the Pope died or something?

After we sat down, we were told that the President had been shot. One of my friends (I was going to say “black friends” but we had no white friends) asked the principal if we black people were now going to go back into slavery.  It was a stupid question and embarrassing, too, but for a second I knew that all of us black girls had asked that inside of ourselves. We finished with a prayer and then were dismissed for the day.

It was raining outside, just like in a corny movie, and people were crying in the street. It was lunchtime and folks were just milling around in a daze. Some guy tried to hit on me and I told him off. He hadn't heard the news.

When I got home, Mamma was in front of the TV. Suddenly, Walter Cronkite, the most respected journalist in America – in short, God – announced that the President had just died. And I still remember this: Cronkite looked behind his right shoulder at the clock on the wall, turned back to camera, and slowly took off his glasses. Mamma and I broke down.

JFK was assassinated live on lunchtime TV. Lee Harvey Oswald – his supposed assassin – was gunned down – on live TV, too. Somebody else – we figured – pulled all of this off. Somebody Big.

My generation – whether left , right, or nothing – started developing a deep, deep distrust of “The Official Version”.  What Ed Snowden discovered doesn’t surprise a boomer one bit, whether they admit or not. We’re all conspiracy junkies. And we’re all a bit crazy, too. Because our golden childhoods got literally blown away. While we were at school.

“Mom and Apple Pie America” ceased to be on 22 November, 1963 at about 1pm CST right after our sandwich, apple, and milk.

I was there. I saw the end. Like Jim Morrison sang.

 

Bonnie Greer is a playwright, author, and the Chancellor of Kingston University.

LORRAINE MALLINDER
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A dictator in the family: why Ebrima Jammeh wants retribution in Gambia

“I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

On 21 January Yahya Jammeh left Gambia. Within minutes of the erstwhile dictator’s departure on a private jet, relieved crowds began to gather at Westfield Junction, a popular meeting point in Serrekunda, the largest town in the country.

For 22 years, Jammeh had cultivated a sorcerer-like persona, claiming he could cure HIV with herbs, ordering a nationwide witch hunt and magicking away countless dissenters to fates unknown.

After losing elections in December, he brought the country to the brink of war, staring down the West African troops waiting at the Senegalese border to remove him. Unable to conjure a way out, he eventually agreed to be exiled to Equatorial Guinea.

Leaning against a car at Westfield, Ebrima Jammeh (pictured above) watched the celebrations with a bitter-sweet expression. Shouting over blaring car horns, he said that he wanted justice for his father, murdered by the regime in 2005. His father, it turned out, was Haruna Jammeh, a first cousin of Yahya. The story of how Haruna and his sister, Masie Jammeh, were “disappeared” by security forces is well known here – a striking example of the former ruler’s ruthlessness.

Days after Yahya Jammeh’s departure, I met Haruna’s widow, Fatimah, with Ebrima and his sister Isatou. They recalled the early Nineties, when “Cousin Yahya” would drop by for green tea in his army officer’s uniform and brag about becoming the next leader of Gambia. “He was very arrogant,” Fatimah said.

Haruna and Yahya grew up on the family farm in Kanilai, on Gambia’s southern border with Senegal. They would play together in the fields. Haruna, six years older, would walk hand in hand with Yahya to school. They were more than cousins, Ebrima said. People called them “cousin-brothers”.

Once they were adults, Haruna remained protective of his cousin. He was working as a restaurant manager, and was a rising star in the Novotel group. Often, he helped out the then-impecunious Yahya with money or food. Few expected the hothead lieutenant to become the next president.

But in 1994 Yahya seized power in a coup. “I heard his voice on the radio and I was surprised,” Fatimah told me. “I phoned my mum and said: ‘Look, he did it.’” By 2000 Yahya had coaxed Haruna into ditching his hotel job and returning to manage the farm. The president had big plans for the farm, which grew into a huge enterprise that controlled many of the nation’s bakeries and butchers – thriving allegedly through land-grabs and subsidies.

Fatimah and the children stayed behind in Serrekunda, but would often visit. Ebrima had happy memories of meals with the extended family. Yahya was by now a distant figure, surrounded by bodyguards on the rare occasions when he visited. Ebrima remembered his uncle telling him to “work hard at school”.

In 2004, Haruna accused some soldiers of stealing fuel and food, and started to speak out against the regime’s frequent sackings and arrests. When he was removed from the farm, Fatimah begged him to come home. But he refused. “He was a strong character, a man of his word, a man of truth. He didn’t take nonsense from anyone,” Ebrima said. Haruna did not expect his younger “cousin-brother” would harm him.

In 2005 Ebrima, by then 21, spoke to his father for the last time after he was arrested in the middle of the night. “Dad said: ‘I don’t know if I’m coming back,’” he told me. “I was scared. I was devastated. I didn’t think I was going to see him again. I knew the kind of person Yahya was and the kind of rages he had.”

Shortly afterwards, Haruna’s sister Masie also disappeared. “My aunt was bold enough to approach the president, but she went missing, too,” Isatou said. “We stopped going to the village. We decided to be quiet because we were so scared they would come after us.”

In the years that followed, Fatimah and the children kept a low profile in the backstreets of Serrekunda. Questions about their surname were common but they denied all links to the president. For a long time, they had no idea whether Haruna and Masie were alive.

In 2014 Ebrima learned the truth from an interview on a Senegalese radio station with Bai Lowe, a former driver with the “Jungulers” (an elite presidential hit squad). Lowe said he had witnessed the strangling of Haruna and Masie Jammeh in July 2005. Their deaths were recorded in a 2015 Human Rights Watch report.

The interview was conducted by Fatu Camara, a former press secretary to Yahya Jammeh, who fled to the US in 2013 after being charged with “tarnishing the image of the president”. She said Masie had threatened to see a marabout, a spiritual leader with reputed supernatural powers, if Yahya did not reveal Haruna’s whereabouts. Having already set the Jungulers on Haruna, Yahya then targeted Masie, too.

On 26 January Gambia’s new president, Adama Barrow, returned from exile in Senegal. He leads an unwieldy, eight-party coalition with differing views on how Jammeh should be held to account. Barrow, who claims to have inherited a “virtually bankrupt” state, has promised to launch a truth and reconciliation process to investigate human rights abuses during the Jammeh regime. In interviews, he has chosen his words carefully, avoiding any mention of prosecution.

But, like many of those who have suffered, Ebrima wants retribution. “I want to see Yahya Jammeh jailed and prosecuted in this country. Justice will finally come.”

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times