Antonio Michael Downing shares his lifelong search for his Black identity in the memoir Saga Boy
Antonio Michael Downing is an author, musician and activist. But he has been many things, and has answered to many different names.
As a young boy growing up in Trinidad, his name was Tony. Living in Canada, many knew him as Michael. And as a globetrotting musician, you might know him as Mic Dainjah, Molasses or John Orpheus.
In his memoir, Saga Boy, Downing explores his many alter-egos and his lifelong search for his Black identity. It's a search that takes him through dislocation, transformation and re-invention.
The Toronto-based Downing spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Saga Boy.
My grandmother, Miss Excelly
"My grandmother was known as Miss Excelly. My grandmother was my whole world. She was my whole universe. She was my mother and my father.
"I grew up in a rainforest in the south of Trinidad. Even people from Trinidad don't go there. There's one road in, one road out. My grandmother taught me two great lessons, of words and song. Often, as I was coming home from school, I would hear her voice calling me home, like it was perfuming the air.
My grandmother was my whole world. She was my whole universe. She was my mother and my father.
"She would read the King James Bible — and when I was around, her eyes were bad. At a very young age, she taught me how to read so I could read her these psalms and be her eyes. These are the lessons that stay with me. They're welded to that landscape — the landscape, and her, in my mind, become one thing."
What is a Saga Boy, anyway?
"My grandfather was a Saga Boy, a Trinidad playboy. The only picture I ever saw of him — he died when I was young — is of him in a fedora, a three-piece suit with a small pocket square, and his hat tilted just so. His eyes look like the pitch of the oil fields where he used to work, and he had money at a time where most people didn't. He also had many women in many places. That's Herbert Downing. That's part of the legacy.
My grandfather was a Saga Boy, a Trinidad playboy.
"To understand myself, I had to understand my parents and my grandparents. To understand them, I had to understand their context. He was a Black man in a British colony with no autonomy.
"It's an emasculating, disempowering situation. And a Saga Boy was my grandfather's way of responding to that life. It's a toxic way of responding to it, but that was his legacy. He handed it down to my father, to me, to my brothers, like the family jewels."
The masks we wear
"I take on these masks and with different names and different costumes. In Trinidad, 'playing mas' is about Carnival, this party that started because the French slave owners would have masquerade balls and the slaves couldn't participate, so they created their own party.
"To this day, it's the biggest event every year in Trinidad. It was a place of abandon, where all the freedom that you didn't have in the rest of your life, you would pour into this night.
I take on these masks and with different names and different costumes.
"I feel in my life, all the things I couldn't express, I would dress up and play mas in my music and in my heart. It allows me to express the inexpressible.
"As I face challenges with my post-traumatic stress disorder, more than a few therapists have told me that I shouldn't have survived as well as I have. I sum it up by saying, 'I'm playing mas. I'm dressing up.'
"Like Oscar Wilde said, 'Give him a mask and he'll show you the truth.' And so, playing mas for me is my way of expressing my truth."
Antonio Michael Downing's comments have been edited for length and clarity.