Category Archives: African Diaspora

Obama’s American Nightmare

UnknownTHOSE CRAZY birthers who insist that Barack Obama is from a foreign country are not completely lunatic. The America of Obama’s youth is not the mainland United States (US). And it’s not mainstream. Hawaii, Obama’s state of birth, was not admitted into the union until 1959. That’s almost two centuries after the American declaration of independence from Britain, and only two years before Obama was born.

The most absurd ‘fact’ I’ve heard about Hawaii is that it has the highest racial minority population of any state in the union – 75 per cent, according to US census figures. How can the majority of people in Hawaii be counted as a minority? Only in the racist United States where whites consider themselves to be the definitive Americans! Forget about the indigenous people. White is the default race and all others are minority. That’s mainland racial politics. But in Hawaii, whites are the minority. That’s what the US census figures actually mean.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN TRAUMA

barackIn a 1999 essay for the Punahou Bulletin, published by his high school in Honolulu, Obama acknowledges the impact of the years he spent in his homeland: “The opportunity that Hawaii offered – to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect – became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”

Obama’s Hawaiian ‘world view’ is fundamentally at odds with racial politics in mainstream America. Born to a black African father and a white American mother, Obama doesn’t easily fit into a box. He isn’t simply African-American. The hyphen does make a difference. Obama comes to mainland America as an outsider whose personal history does not include the African-American trauma of enslavement and all it entails. Despite Michelle, it is a struggle for Obama to claim the hyphen.

ingodwetrustAnd African-Americans are struggling to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, especially since he’s president of all America. Obama is a biracial, multicultural American who embodies many of the ideological contradictions that constitute the US. The unofficial national motto asserts unity: ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many one’). But America is a divided society. Trusting in God seems to make no difference.

‘POST-RACIAL’ AMERICA

The cold-bloodied slaying of Trayvon Martin and the contested ruling that has freed his assailant have become yet another test case of the fundamental fairness of the US justice system. On all sides of the angry debate about what went wrong, there’s the shameful knowledge that race remains a provocative sign of both criminality and innocence in a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America.

bsr005President Obama has been caught in the crossfire. In a much-analysed speech two Fridays ago, he revealed his somewhat ambiguous identification with Trayvon Martin and, more broadly, African-American culture. This is how he began: “I gave a preliminary statement right after the ruling on Sunday, but, watching the debate over the course of the last week, I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit.”

That’s the first problem. Obama’s initial pronouncement on the judgment, appealing for “calm”, appears to be his instinctive reaction. The expansion of his thoughts comes a little bit too late. And it’s really just a little bit too little. Obama shouldn’t need to watch the debate in order to realise that, as president, it was his duty to make a much more nuanced and expansive statement on yet another American tragedy.

Trayvon Martin's parents in Washington DCAfter affirming the “grace and dignity” of Trayvon’s parents in response to the contested ruling that freed their son’s killer, Obama tried, yet again, to identify with the victim: “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.

“And when you think about why, in the African-American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognise that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”

RACIAL PROFILING

strange-fruitIt is precisely this set of experiences and history that Obama does not own. This “set” is not in his DNA. And it’s not only African-Americans who are looking at the issue through the lens of a history that doesn’t go away. Euro-Americans have their own set of experiences and history – of lynching, for example – that influences how they view the death of Trayvon Martin. Furthermore, people of goodwill, of all races, are agitated about the killing and the judgment.

Obama gives three examples of racial profiling of African-American males. In each successive instance, he becomes more and more distant. The first example is “being followed when shopping in a department store”. Obama says, “That includes me”.

The next example is “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars”. Obama says, “That happens to me”. Present tense. He quickly qualifies it, “at least, before I was a senator”. That’s a big leap away from racial profiling. Not to mention president.

Obama’s final example is “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off”. Obama doesn’t even pretend that he’s had that experience: “That happens often”.

The race of the generic woman is unmarked. If she’s white, it’s fear of the predatory black man. If she’s black, it’s the same thing. But, in the latter case, it’s now black-on-black crime. Why don’t we ever talk about white-on-white crime? Because white is normative and black is pathological?

Picture1_000In his expanded thoughts, Obama does give some prescriptions for the disease of racial profiling. He pays particular attention to the dilemma of African-American males. But he cannot identify with them fully, no matter how hard he tries to be Trayvon. It’s the hyphen again. Obama inherited his mother’s American nightmare. But he also possesses distant dreams from his African father.

Paying For Emancipation

images-7Britain’s Black Debt is the intriguing title of a provocative book launched to much fanfare earlier this month by the University of the West Indies Press. The Nyahbinghi House drummers and chanters set the tone of the occasion. ‘Black Liberation Day’, ‘Open de Gate Mek We Repatriate’, ‘Four Hundred Million Black Man’ and ‘Every Time We Chant Nyahbinghi I an I Waan Trod Home a Yaad’ were some of the ‘heartical’ chants that heralded the launch.

The book’s author is Prof Sir Hilary Beckles, distinguished Barbadian historian and principal of the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies. In Britain’s Black Debt, Beckles tackles the contentious issue of reparations for both the genocide of the indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Africans in the so-called West Indies. Christopher Columbus lost his way to the ‘East Indies’ and our region is now stuck with a name that perpetuates the great discoverer’s error!

viewer-1The cover of the book brilliantly illustrates its theme. The main image is a 1966 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II with her cousin, George Henry Hubert Lascelles, the 7th Earl of Harewood, on his sugar plantation in Barbados. The property was bought by one of the earl’s relatives in 1780, along with 232 slaves. In the background, at a respectful distance, is a large group of well-dressed, carefully choreographed spectators, mostly white, whose body language suggests decorous delight at finding themselves in the presence of royalty.

TAINTED WEALTH

Beneath the photograph, there’s a row of shackled Africans: three children; three women, each with a baby wrapped on her back; and seven men. Two black overseers with guns are keeping them all in line. The enslaved humans are the literal subtext of the main story about colonial masters and their loyal subjects. Beckles compellingly argues that forced labour in the Caribbean is the foundation of much of the wealth of Britain, including that of the Royal Family.

images-2Beckles pays tribute to Eric Williams’ revolutionary book, Capitalism and Slavery, first published in 1944. There, Beckles argues, Williams “constructed the framework for the reparations case”. Beckles does concede that Williams “stopped short of making an explicit call for reparations”. But, he asserts, the book “still represents the most persuasive articulation of evidence” that “Britain’s magnificent, enviable industrial civilisation emerged from the foul waters of colonial slavery”.

The Earl of Harewood died on July 10, 2011 at the age of 88. His obituary in the London Telegraph substantiates Beckles’ case: “The Lascelles family had made their fortune in the West Indies. An 18th-century ancestor, Edwin Lascelles, had built the magnificent Harewood House in the family estates in the West Riding of Yorkshire”.   Harewood House is not a house. It is a palatial monument to capitalist greed.

images-3

Harewood House

And its owners have no shame about the source of their tainted wealth. The Harewood House website states quite matter-of-factly that, “[b]y 1787, the Lascelles family had interests in 47 plantations and owned thousands of slaves in Barbados and across the West Indies. The Lascelles weren’t unique – most merchants of the period were involved in the slave trade”.  And Harewood House is now a tourist attraction. It costs £14 for adults to tour the ‘house’, including staterooms, and £10 to visit just the grounds and below stairs. Class privilege comes at a price.

LUNATIC PROPOSITION

The most startling fact I learnt at the launch of Britain’s Black Debt is that the British government had wanted emancipated slaves to pay reparations to their former masters for the loss of their service. A lunatic proposition! Where was the money supposed to come from? The Haitian people had been forced to borrow money to pay reparations to France for claiming their freedom. In the case of the British, it was they who were claiming freedom from us. True, rebellious slaves across the British colonies had fought for freedom. But, in effect, Emancipation was designed to free the British government of all legal and moral obligations to the formerly enslaved.

Sir Thomas Buxton

Sir Thomas Buxton

The abolitionist, Sir Thomas Buxton, had urged his fellow parliamentarians to pay reparations to emancipated Africans. But, as Beckles notes, “[T]he British Parliament, densely populated with slaveholders and other beneficiaries of slave investments, did not take Buxton’s suggestion seriously”.   Eventually, the British government decided to pay reparations to slave owners on behalf of the enslaved. But no reparations were to be paid to the primary victims of this demonic crime against humanity.

It’s bad enough that some British MPs still don’t take reparations seriously. But why do most of us, the descendants of enslaved Africans, act as if the idea of reparations is a big joke? Is it because we believe the lie that slavery was good for us, taking us from ‘savagery’ to ‘civilisation’? Have we not read Walter Rodney’s brilliant book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa?

AFRICAN RENAISSANCE

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established on May 25, 1963 in Addis Ababa. A primary mission of the organisation was to end colonial rule on the African continent. On May 26, 2001, the OAU was rebranded as the African Union (AU). May 25 has come to be known as African Liberation Day. It is an occasion to reflect on the protracted struggle of Africans on the continent and in the diaspora to reclaim the right to determine our own destiny.

PrintThe theme for the 50th anniversary celebrations is ‘Panfricanism & African Renaissance’. If we are serious about the rebirth of the continent, reparations must be put on the agenda of the AU. And if we are to escape recolonisation by the International Monetary Fund, reparations must be put on the CARICOM agenda.

Reparations is the urgent message Professor Beckles took to Ethiopia last week, where he addressed a conference that was convened ahead of the 21st African Union Summit. Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller is there. I hope she knows she must speak out on behalf of Rastafari and all those heroic Jamaicans like Paul Bogle and Sam Sharpe who have long been fighting for reparative justice.

Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson to speak at UWI

Freestylee-500pxMichael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson, co-founder of the International Reggae Poster Contest, will speak about his work as a politically engaged graphic artist on Thursday, April 18 at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall lecture theatre (N1) at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Thompson, a Jamaican who now resides in the U.S., is a distinguished graduate of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.

In an interview posted on the Jamaica Primetime website, published June 7, 2010, Thompson highlights the cultural and political messages in his poster art:  “My graphic designs, and in particular my posters like the ones on Flickr draw their influences in terms of style from the retro Cuban Revolutionary Poster of the 1960s. The “golden age” as that period is called. The aesthetics and communication are based on the principle that “simple is best” and the message is king. The designs can be placed in the category of modern iconic art with strong political or social messages.

saudi2.jpg.w300h405“These types of activist or socially conscious art are now becoming main stream; made popular by artists like Bansky and Shepherd Fairey whom I admire greatly. My designs are quite varied, depending on the poster type and whether it is political or cultural, regional or international. I tend to lend a voice to issues which I feel passionate about, such as injustice against indigenous people, environmental exploitation and poverty.

“However, I also touch on Jamaica’s rich historical and cultural past. Jamaica’s musical experience is a treasure I just cannot ignore; Ska, Rocksteady and Reggae. My style is also deeply rooted in Jamaican popular symbols mostly from the iconic years of the 1970s. I take those images from Jamaica’s urban visuals and turn them into cool posters of our time. Images include hand carts, skates, Honda 50s, s-90 (Honda motorcycle), Rastafarian lion of Judah etc; turning them into hip international visual icons, anything that is retro Jamaican was fair game.

“I try to keep the designs crisp with a minimalist feel yet visually powerful. I always retain a fresh and direct approach to my designs. I illustrate all the elements and just roll with it in a freestyle way. The political side of my art plays a big role in my design collection. They speak on the burning international issues and conflicts. The Israeli attack on Gaza and the wider Israeli Palestinian conflict, the US embargo on Cuba, Healthcare, Police brutality, Exploitation in the Amazon, Freedom, Anti War and Peace, Tibet, and Globalization. I guess I am an internationalist at heart and so is my art”.

Alpha-Boys-SchoolThompson recently designed and generously donated a logo for the Alpha Boys’ School which has nurtered several generations of Jamaican musicians. Sister Susan Frazer, RSM, Director of the school, first saw the illustration of the boy playing the trombone that would become Alpha’s logo at the ‘World A Reggae’ exhibition held at the National Gallery of Jamaica in September 2012. “The moment I saw Michael’s work and the image which is now the Alpha logo I instantly knew it would fit perfectly with our history and our vision for the future at Alpha,” remembers Sister Susan. “The logo has really become not just about branding but a catalyst for collective action across the Alpha community”.

An exhibition of Thompson’s reggae posters is on show at the UWI Museum. These posters were used in the design of the Global Reggae book, edited by Carolyn Cooper.  Maria Papaefstathiou, a Greek graphic artist who co-founded the International Reggae Poster Contest, designed the elegant book:

http://www.behance.net/gallery/Global-Reggae-Book/7627493

Dr. Suzanne Francis-Brown, curator of the museum, says Thompson’s exhibition has attracted a lot of positive attention, both for the vibrant graphics and for the reggae music content. Visitors have been intrigued by his visualisation of the music from its early days through to its global incarnations. The exhibition remains up through the month of April, in tandem with an exhibition on the Origins of the University of the West Indies.

michael-thompson-freestylee-i-am-tivoliThe UWI Museum is located on the ground floor of the University’s Regional Headquarters on the Hermitage Road, across from the main entrance to the Mona Campus.  Opening hours are 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  On the 18th of April, the Museum will remain open until 6:30 p.m. to facilitate visitors on their way to Thompson’s talk.  He will speak on the subject, “Freestylee:  Artist Without Borders”.  The public is invited to attend and admission is free.

‘Bring In All Rastas, Dead Or Alive!’

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Sir Alexander Bustamante

Those are the infamous words of Sir Alexander Bustamante, national hero and first prime minister of independent Jamaica. Bustamante’s turn of phrase comes straight out of the Wild West: “Wanted dead or alive.” Bustamante apparently conceived all Rastafarians as outlaws in a Hollywood western who had to be exterminated by any means necessary.

Issuing a death sentence, Bustamante literally turned all Rastafarians into villains. Guilty or innocent, they could no longer expect to enjoy the protection of the law. All Rastafarians were completely demonised and became victims of comprehensive state brutality. How did this come about?

images-6Half a century ago, at about 4 a.m. on ‘Holy’ Thursday, six bearded men set fire to a gas station in Coral Gardens. They were armed with machetes, guns, bows and arrows. I suppose it was cowboys and Indians, Jamrock style. The leader was Rudolph ‘Franco’ Franklyn, who had a big grievance against the owner of the gas station, Ken Douglas.

Franklyn and several other bearded men had long been squatting on land in Coral Gardens. They lived in relative peace until the land was sold to Douglas. Naturally, the new owner asserted his right to the property and attempted to drive the squatters off the land. As is often the case, the squatters refused to budge.

During one of several attempts at eviction, Franklyn was shot by the police. He survived but was told by a medical doctor that he would die sooner rather than later from a bullet lodged in his body. Determined to take revenge on his assailants, Franklyn sought allies to launch his counter-attack.

DREADLOCKS AND COMBSOME

images-3At the time, there were two groups of Rastafarians living in MoBay: the dreadlocks and the combsome. The dreadlocks lived on Railway Lane and the combsome squatted in Coral Gardens. Franklyn irrationally proposed that both groups of Rastas join forces to burn down Montego Bay. The dreadlocks rejected the scheme on the basis that Rastas defend ‘peace and love’.

Franklyn, who seemed to subscribe to the philosophy “I don’t give a damn, I done dead already”, pressed along with his plans. Instead of burning down all of MoBay, he settled for Douglas’ gas station, an obviously flammable target.

http://www.songstube.net/video.php?title=Zombie%20Jamboree&artistid=6603&artist=Harry%20Belafonte&id=131586

On the morning of the attack, there was only one attendant at the station, Mr George Plummer, who fled for his life to the nearby Edgewater Inn Motel. He, clearly, had no shares in the company. A Mr Marsh, who was at the motel, foolishly ventured out to investigate the matter. In a most unfortunate turn of affairs, he was murdered. By midday, seven others lost their lives, including Franklyn.

According to a Gleaner report published on April 13, 1963, “The Montego Bay Fire Brigade had responded to the fire alert at 4:53 a.m. from the house of Dr Carol Delisser. The blaze at the gas station was brought under control after 5 a.m. led by Supt Sydney Burke, who joined the police squad that rushed up from Montego Bay under Inspector Fisher. Five vehicles, including two civilians, started into the hills after the Rastafarian gang. Among those chasing the gang was Mr Causwell, who was on his way to Kingston but decided to give some help to the chase.

Rose Hall Great House

Rose Hall Great House

“They drove through two miles of rough terrain from the ruins of Rose Hall Great House. The search party ran into the gang or rather ran into an ambush. The bearded men attacked from an overhanging cliff above. In the fight which ensued, two of the gang were shot to death and Corporal Melbourne and Mr Causwell were cut down. By then, it was discovered later that Headman Fowler had been already cut down about a mile from his home on Tryall Farm.”

The day’s gruesome events became known as ‘the Coral Gardens Incident’. But this was much more than an isolated ‘incident’. Franklyn’s murderous rampage was a sign of the fundamental inequities of Jamaican society. Landlessness is a recurring a problem which has never been properly addressed by successive pre- and post-Independence governments.

WINSTON CHURCHILL’S CIGARS

images-1The response of Bustamante’s government to the terrible actions of six bearded men was brutally excessive: “Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive!” Why should all Rastafarians be exterminated because of the actions of six men, especially since the ringleader had already been killed? Bustamante’s irrational call signified much more than a need to restore the peace. The Coral Gardens ‘Incident’ was a chilling episode in a long history of state violence against Rastafari.

In 1954, under the premiership of Bustamante, a major Rastafarian encampment, Pinnacle, was burnt down. The camp was located in St Jago Hills, close to Sligoville. Pinnacle was a productive agricultural hub, yielding rich crops such as cassava, peas, corn and, of course, ganja. Maintaining African traditions of collective labour, Pinnacle flourished under the leadership of Leonard Howell.

images-2French journalist Hélène Lee, author of The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism, published in 2004, proposes that Howell was the first Jamaican ‘don’ in the best possible sense of that word. He was a don in the British sense of a university professor. Howell was a Garveyite who valued scholarship.

He was also a charismatic community leader who gave hope to landless Rastafari who left Kingston’s concrete jungle for the hills of St Catherine. Pinnacle comprised approximately 5,000 acres, even though Howell owned only a conservative estimate of 150 acres and, possibly, up to 400.

Winston Churchll

Winston Churchll

According to anecdotal evidence, much of the ganja produced at Pinnacle found its way to the warfront during the Second European War. Ganja was seen as therapy for the troops. It was even rumoured that Winston Churchill’s famous cigars contained much more than tobacco. In 1953, Churchill visited Jamaica, staying at the Tower Isle hotel. Was there any connection between his visit and the destruction of Pinnacle? I leave the answer to conspiracy theorists.

Who’s In Charge of the Rompin’ Shop?

Hot_Dancehall_Queen_by_answer973March is International Women’s Month.  It’s a good a time to talk about sexual politics in dancehall culture which is often dismissed by outsiders as misogynist. But dancehall culture can be seen in a quite different way as a celebration of full-bodied female sexuality.  Especially the substantial structure of the Black working-class woman whose body image is rarely validated in the middle-class Jamaican media!

The uninhibited display of female bodies in the dancehall is vividly illustrated in the lyrics of two foundation deejays whose endurance is legendary: Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw.   References to fleshy female body parts and oscillatory functions should not be seen just as devaluation of female sexuality.

32349In “Gone Up,” from the As Raw as Ever 1991 CD, Shabba, playing on the proverbial association between food and sex, notes that the price of a number of commodities is going up.  To a chorus of affirmative female voices, he asks women a rather pointed question and proceeds to give advice on negotiating a mutually beneficial sexual contract:

Woman, wa unu a do fi unu lovin?

(Wi a raise it to)

Before yu let off di work

Yu fi defend some dollars first

Mek a man know seh

Ten dollar can’t buy French cut

No mek no man work yu out

A body line, old truck.

‘Everything a raise’

images-2Shabba makes it clear that he’s not advocating prostitution. The complicated relationships between men and women cannot be reduced to purely economic terms of exchange. He insists that men must assume responsibility for their sexual partner.  It’s a moral issue:

Is not a matter a fact seh dat unu a sell it.

But some man seh dat dem want it.

As dem get it, dem run gone lef it.

No mek no man run gone lef it

An yu no get profit

Everything a raise, so weh unu a do?

Shabba encourages robotic, domesticated females to stand up for themselves. They are often too timid to question the unequal exchange of services and resources in the household:

Have some woman gwaan like dem no worth

Hitch up inna house like a house robot

House fi clean, dem clean dat up

An clothes fi wash, dem wash dat up

An dollars a run an dem naa get enough

Shabba chastises irresponsible men who waste household resources on carousing with their male cronies:

IcyMint32x405g100ctNow yu have some man no want do no spending

Dem wuda do di spending pon dem bredrin

An naa buy dem darling  a icymint.

An icymint is one of the cheapest sweets on the market. The depth of the delinquent man’s failure is measured in very common currency.

Erotica or pornography?

Lady Saw would certainly not put up with this kind of cheap man. In a decisive act of feminist emancipation, she cuts loose from conventional social expectations. Marian Hall’s spectacular performance of the role of “Lady Saw” is not often acknowledged as a calculated decision by the actress to make the best of the opportunity to earn a good living in the theatre of the dancehall.

images-3     Flamboyantly exhibitionist, Lady Saw embodies the erotic. But one viewer’s erotica is another’s pornography. So Lady Saw is usually censured for being far too loose—or “slack”. Even worse, she is often dismissed as a mere victim of patriarchy, robbed of all power. But it is Lady Saw’s anansi-like personality that appeals to a wide cross-section of intelligent fans – both male and female.

In addition to the sexually explicit songs for which she is infamous, Lady Saw’s repertoire includes impeccable hymns, country and western laments, songs of warning to women about the wiles of men and politically “conscious” lyrics that constitute hardcore socio-cultural analysis.

pa-4942810In a radio interview in the “Uncensored” series on Fame FM, Lady Saw boldly countered charges of vulgarity with absolute self- assurance:

Interviewer: Lady Saw, you do things like, yu grab yu crotch on stage. . . .

Lady Saw: Uh huh. Michael Jackson did it and nobody say anything about it.

Interviewer: And you gyrate on the ground. I mean, do you think this is acceptable for a woman?

Lady Saw: Yes, darling. For this woman. And a lot of woman would like to do the same but I guess they are too shy.

Shyness is not one of Lady Saw’s virtues. In response to the question, “Some people are saying that you are vulgar on stage and your lyrics are indecent. Do you think they are justified?”, she dismissively asserts: “I think critics are there to do their job and I am here to my job . . .  to entertain and please my fans.”

Aphrodisiac Avocado

So who’s in charge of the rompin’ shop? In the case of Shabba Ranks and Lady Saw it’s a clear draw.  And, not so surprisingly, even the frontrunners of the reggae revival are singing rompin’ shop songs. Last Thursday evening, Janine ‘Jah9’ Cunningham gave a brilliant lecture at the University of the West Indies, Mona, tracing her musical journey to her first CD, New Name.

images-4One of Jah9’s sweetest tracks ‘bigs up’ her ‘humble lion’ who is almost seven feet tall and wears size 14.  He satisfies her with the ‘right remedy’:  avocado. The aphrodisiac qualities of this fruit are well known.  At the album launch at Redbones, she put on the mask of her sunglasses to sing “Avocado”.

Jah9’s lecture was the first in a series of ‘Reggae Talks’ that are being hosted by the Department of Literatures English. Protoje will give this week’s lecture on Thursday at 7:00 p.m. in the Neville Hall Lecture Theatre (N1).  No-Maddz, Cali P and Michael ‘Freestylee’ Thompson follow.  The public is invited and admission is free. The reggae dancehall rompin’ shop has many rooms.

Bleaching in Black History Month

images-2It’s Reggae Month and Black History Month, combination style.  Unless you have superhuman stamina, you cannot possibly keep up with all the events.  I’m not even trying.  I’ve selected a few and that’s it.  I have a day job and I simply cannot ‘bleach’.  Neither in English nor Jamaican.

Incredibly, the English words ‘bleach’ and ‘black’ seem to share a common origin.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, they both appear to come from a prehistoric language for which there are no written records.  This tongue has been reconstructed by linguists who see it as the ancestor of many of the modern languages of Europe and Asia.

cartelIn this ancient mother tongue, the word “bhleg” meant “to burn, gleam, shine, flash”.  The flash of fire became brightness as in ‘bleach’; and the burning produced darkness as in ‘black’. I can just imagine how pleased Vybz Kartel would be to realise that there is linguistic evidence for his paradoxical claim that bleaching is not necessarily a sign of self-hate.  It might actually be a most peculiar manifestation of blackness.

Seriously, though, I gave a paper yesterday at the International Reggae Conference held at the University of the West Indies, Mona.  Scholars from across the world came to Jamaica to reflect with us on “traditional and emerging expressions in popular music”.  I focused on Vybz Kartel’s insightful book, The Voice of the Jamaican Ghetto.  And I mean ‘nuff’ insights.

images-3Co-author Michael Dawson, of People’s Telecom fame, admits that, “Many people have wondered how this improbable collaboration came about.  How could someone who is a known Garveyite collude with the ‘Bleacher’ to write a book”?  In the chapter “No Love for the Black Child” Kartel gives a sarcastic answer:  “Ironically, I lightened my skin and everyone condemned me.  All of a sudden there is an outpouring of love for black skin”.

Kartel elaborates the ironies:  “Some of my executioners are women with false hair, multi-coloured contact lenses or others who have been using various agents to ‘cool down’ their skin.  All of a sudden, after 500 years they start to love the Black Child?  Or is it me you hate?”

Adulterers and Homosexuals

images-4One of the most popular sessions of the conference was the Annual Bob Lecture, delivered by Alan ‘Skill’ Cole.  It wasn’t really a formal lecture, as the title made clear: “Bob Marley:  The Man That I Know”.  The talk was an intimate, wide-ranging celebration of an exceptional friendship.

This is how ‘Skill’ puts it in the programme notes: “I trained him . . . and we lived a life consistent with being a good athlete. . . . . We would wake up around 4:30-5:00 and train; eat, then go to the studio; then go sell records; come back, play some football and, in the night-time, write some music”.

skill4I missed a fair bit of the talk because I had a class. One of the moments I found most touching was Cole’s nostalgia about going to bathe with Bob some nights at a spring just above Papine.  I couldn’t help thinking that these days, two men bathing together would be a sure sign of ‘deviant’ behaviour that should be both bleached and burned.

Healthy relationships between men have been contaminated by fears of homosexuality.  In Black History Month, as we attempt to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, we really do need to look again at some of the Old Testament judgements that are completely irrelevant in the modern age. The book of Leviticus condemns adulterers but we conveniently ignore that inconvenient fact.  Why can’t we do the same with homosexuals?

Reggae Ambassadors

Another big event for Reggae Month is the launch today of the book Global Reggae. This is how Kwame Dawes describes it (and I didn’t pay him a red cent): “Carolyn Cooper has skilfully edited a book of startling visual design and intellectual depth that manages to demonstrate, through complex and varied voices, reggae’s astounding impact on the globe. The term ‘essential’ is used a lot these days, but sometimes it is a fit and righteous word to employ. Global Reggae is essential reading for anyone who is seeking to appreciate this great cultural phenomenon.”

GlobalReggaeCoverAll of the contributors to the Global Reggae compilation are authorities in their field: Kam-Au Amen, Peter Ashbourne, Erna Brodber, Louis Chude-Sokei, Brent Clough, Carolyn Cooper, Cheikh Ahmadou Dieng, Samuel Furé Davis, Teddy Isimat-Mirin, Ellen Koehlings, Pete Lilly, Amon Saba Saakana, Roger Steffens, Marvin D. Sterling, Michael Veal, Leonardo Vidigal and Klive Walker.

It was the Third World Band who popularised the idea of the “reggae ambassador”.  And they tell a now familiar story:

“So everywhere I jam it’s the same question

‘How can a big music come from a little island?’

When the music play[s] it leaves them in a state of shock

The big-big music from the little rock!”

The self-concept of Jamaicans certainly cannot be measured by the small size of our island. We’re much more than a little speck in the Caribbean Sea.  And it was Shabba Ranks who so vividly said that it is the talent of reggae and dancehall artists that enables them to “fly off Jamaica map”.

Dj_Afifa_Banner_by_Dr_JayBone_DesignzThe launch of the Global Reggae book takes place at PULS8, 38A Trafalgar Road, and starts at 6:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free.  Guest speaker is Michelle ‘DJ Afifa’ Harris, a doctoral candidate at the University of the West Indies, Mona and a very talented selector. Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus, Jah 9, Protoje, No-Maddz and Cali P will perform.  If all goes well, the event will be streamed live on the Internet at UWI TV and will  be archived here:  http://tv.mona.uwi.edu/.  After all, Global Reggae is a big-big book that fly off Jamaica map.

Peter Tosh Pulse Interview

I’ve had several requests for this interview which I did with Peter Tosh after his last concert.  It was a magnificent performance  at Pulse Superjam in December 1983.

ToshPulse(Cooper)1984-06

Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij

Lake Rotorua

Late one night, several years ago, I find myself in idle conversation with a drunken Maori man in the main bus station in the city of Auckland.  I’d just come by train from Rotorua, a fantastic region of New Zealand full of geysers, mud pools and all sorts of volcanic activity.  I was quite tired from the four-hour journey so I was definitely not in the mood for conversation with sober people, much more drunks.

“Kia ora!”, the man calls out.  After almost a week in New Zealand I know this means ‘hi’ in Maori.  I pretend to be deaf.  But this old man is persistent and quite loudly repeats his ‘kia ora’.  He proudly announces, “That’s ‘hello’ in my language, Maori.”  Big laugh now.  “You can say it?”, he challenges me.

Fijian women in traditional dress

I say to myself, “This man drunk but im not drunk to dat”.  So I decide to humour him.  I imitate his greeting and he laughs heartily.  “Good,” he says, “Not like these pakeha people.  Can’t talk Maori”. I also now know that ‘pakeha’ means ‘white people’ in Maori.  The old man warms to the conversation.  “You from Fiji?”, he asks.  “No”, I respond.

Naturally, this monosyllabic answer is getting us nowhere.  So he follows up, “Where?”  I say, “Africa”.  Then he asks, and I should have seen it coming, “Kia ora!  How you say ‘hello’ in your language?”  Big trouble now.  What am I going to tell this man?  Im drunk, so I’m tempted to make up some mumbo-jumbo.  But that would be taking a joke too far.

English colonized by Africans

So I draw my ‘real-real’ language, Jamaican.  I tell him that in my language we say, “Wa a gwaan?”  So for the next few minutes this drunken man keeps on repeating, “Wa gwaan?”  He doesn’t quite catch the extra ‘a’ in the middle.

My sister, Donnette, who used to work for an airline company and so could do crazy things like fly from Maryland to New Zealand for a long weekend, is by this time shaking her head in amazement.  Her contribution to the conversation is, “I hope is not this kind of fraudulent information you been giving out along the way”.  I was on a six-week lecture tour of the Pacific.

“Fraudulent?” I protested.  “‘Wa a gwaan?’ is kinda African”.  After all.  Even though ‘Wa a gwaan?’ is really Jamaican not African, we all know where Jamaican came from:  various dialects of 17th English colonized by speakers of various West African languages, for the most part.  I know that some backward people still insist that Jamaican is not a language; it’s just a ‘corruption’ of English.  Africans are doing the corrupting.

So ‘wa a gwaan?’ is nothing but a rotten version of ‘What’s going on?’  But, trust me, nobody who doesn’t know Jamaican, drunk or no drunk, would ever figure out that ‘Wa a gwaan?’ started life as English.  It has been completely disguised.

Language death and rebirth

While in New Zealand I was fortunate to interview Professor Pat Hohepa at Auckland University’s Maori Studies Centre.  One of his big concerns is what he calls ‘language death’.  There was a period in New Zealand’s recent history when it looked as if the Maori language was dying out.

     Now, there’s a concerted effort to teach Maori in schools.  Speaking the Maori language is recognized as an essential way of keeping the culture alive.  And it’s not only Maoris who need to learn the language.  If pakehas are really serious about creating a truly bi-cultural New Zealand, they will have to learn Maori too.

Professor Hohepa also talked about reggae music in Maori.  And he highlighted Bob Marley’s revolutionary music as a language of resistance for the Maoris in their struggle to regain control over their collective destiny:  “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”.

I wonder how long it’s going to take us in Jamaica to realise the value of the new mother tongues Africans created in this country and across the African diaspora.  Our educators don’t seem to understand that as long as we tell children that they ‘chat bad’ when they use their mother tongue, we are planting the seeds of low self-esteem.  And we will reap badness.  Or, perhaps, we do understand and that’s why we refuse to acknowledge Jamaican as a ‘proper-proper’ language.

International Creole Day

Creole languages map

Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations.  Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.

French Creole languages are spoken and written in Haiti, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritania and Louisiana.   The vocabulary of our own Jamaican Creole is mostly of English origin.  So it’s sometimes not so easy for amateurs to see how different the language really is from English.

We don’t fully understand ‘wat a gwaan’ with the other aspects of the Jamaican language such as grammar, word order and the structure of sounds.  And we arrogantly refuse to take the linguists seriously even though they actually know what they’re talking about.

Mother and Tongues by Vito Bica

If we had stopped to listen to the linguists who have been doing serious research on Caribbean Creoles for more than half a century, we would have realised by now that we should have been joyously celebrating the Jamaican language in this fiftieth anniversary of independence.  For language is one of the primal expressions of identity.

One of the big ironies of our racialised national motto is that it fails to recognise that it’s not a vague ‘out of oneness’ that unites us as a people.   It’s the specificity of the Jamaican language.  Most Jamaicans, irrespective of class, colour, gender, sexual orientation and age, are more or less competent speakers of Jamaican.  And if you don’t know the language, you are the odd one out: yu salt!  Yu no know wat a gwaan.

Peter Tosh Did Not Joke With Words

Shortly after Peter Tosh made his last concert appearance in December 1983, I did an interview with him that was published in Pulse magazine.  One of his most powerful declarations was this: “. . . me don’t run joke wid words.”  Tosh was objecting to the way in which the term ‘peace treaty’ was being used so loosely.  And he gave a rather irreverent sermon on the subject:

“Claudie Mashup, or weh him want to name, him came to my house once and told me about this project that they had.  And dem say that dem going to call it a peace treaty.  I a look fe peace.  Because to me, peace should have really meant people respecting people, people loving people.

“A man becoming his brother’s keeper.  A man can lef him door open an go bout him business and a next man don’t come pop it off.  Is so me call peace.  A man don’t have gun over the next area an a tell you say him have a border cross ya-so and you can’t come across there.

  “So I mek them know me don’t run joke with words.  Every time I see the word ‘peace’ you know where I see it?  In the cemetery:  ‘Here lies the body of such and such.  May he rest in peace.’  So how a guy waan come tell me say him a go have a peace treaty amongst the living, where all the dead rest in wha?  Peace?  Ah-oh.”

I don’t know if this wicked mashing up Massop’s name was a Tosh original.  There are many such examples of witty word play in his lyrics.  Poliomyelitis became reggaemylitis, a joyous infection that moves every muscle in the body.  The words ‘system’ and ‘situation’ were cleverly transformed by the insertion of a well-placed ‘h’ and ‘t’.  Tosh evoked the stench of the oppressive dunghills of social injustice and moral corruption that continue to rise up everywhere in Jamaica.

In his dread lecture delivered at the so-called “Peace Concert” in 1978, Tosh chanted down the excremental system:   “Four hundred years an de same bucky maasa bizniz.  An black inferiority, an brown superiority rule dis lickle black country here fe a long [t]imes.  Well I an I come wid Earthquake, Lightnin an Tunda to break down dese barriers of oppression an drive away transgression and rule equality between humble black people.”

Garvey’s African Redemption 

Peter Tosh was an unapologetic advocate of what Marcus Garvey called “African Redemption”.  We hear this in his rousing anthem,  ‘African’, from the 1977 Equal Rights album:  “Don’t care where yu come from/  As long as you’re a black man/  You’re an African.”   Not all Jamaicans would agree.  Some of us don’t even want to admit that we’re black, let alone African.

In a letter to the Editor published in The Gleaner on September 25, Daive Facey asks a revealing question, “Who are ‘Blacks’, Ms Cooper?”  He already knows the answer:  “Many classified as ‘blacks’ based on external features and placed into the 90 per cent majority can easily trace their mixed lineages, and in terms of genealogy are no less Caucasian, Indian or Chinese”.

Mr. Facey is quite right. Many clearly black Jamaicans routinely claim ancestors of other races who have left no visible traces of themselves on the body of their supposed relatives. And even in cases where some racial mixing is evident, the African element in the mix is always the half that is never told.  Mixed-race Jamaicans are half-Indian; half-Chinese; half-Syrian; half-white.  But never half-African!

It is only people of African descent in Jamaica who do not define their racial identity in terms that point to ancestral homelands.  Europeans, Chinese, Syrians and Indians are all raced and placed in their very naming.  Africans are ‘so-so’ black.  Going against the tide,  Tosh deliberately chose ‘African’ as a marker of racial identity.

‘Inna di race ting’

In a witty newspaper article entitled ‘Perkins and Black History,’ the now late Eric ‘Macko’ McNish, former editor of the Jamaica Beat newspaper, related an anecdote that illustrates the complexity of racial politics in Jamaica:  “When Chinese Jamaicans and East Indian Jamaicans used to organise annual cricket matches between an All-Indian XI and All-Chinese XI at the Chinese Cricket Club (now owned by Melbourne), all Jamaicans applauded it.

“However, when two Black Jamaicans (which included this writer) asked the captain of the East Indian XI, who was a former Boys’ Town player, if an All-African XI of Black Jamaicans could play the winner of his match against the Chinese XI, his answer was ‘Bwoy wi doan waan get inna di race ting.’”

Tosh was more than willing to “get inna di race ting”. He establishes ‘African’ as a racial category and then goes on to assert, “No mind yu nationality/  You have got the identity/  Of an African.”

Furthermore, Tosh’s conception of African identity is quite inclusive:

No mind yu complexion

There is no rejection

You’re an African

Cause if yu plexion high, high, high

If yu plexion low, low, low

If yu plexion in between

You’re an African

Though Tosh seems to assert a hierarchy of high, low and in-between complexions, it is the very notion of hierarchy that is being contested.  Whatever the physical manifestation of ‘africanness’ in terms of skin colour, there is a rooted cultural identity that transcends the physical. ‘There is no rejection’ of mixed-race people from the category ‘African’.

Peter Tosh was one of reggae music’s greatest philosophers. In honour of his life and legacy, the University of the West Indies, Mona  hosteed a symposium on Friday, October 19:  “Peter Tosh – Reggae Revolutionary and Equal Rights Advocate”.   Tosh’s children, Niambe and Dave, as well as Herbie Miller, Clinton Hutton and I were the main spekaers.  Michael Barnett chaired the event. None of us ‘dida run joke wid words’.Ma

The Colour of Money in Multiracial Jamaica

On a flight from Miami several years ago, I sat next to a little girl who seemed to about 10 or so years of age.  She was looking through a magazine and came across a picture of three little girls – black, white and brown.  I mischievously asked her, “Which one of them looks like you?”  She picked the black child.

I then asked her, “Which one do you look like?”  And, believe it or not, she chose the brown child.  Mi nearly dead.  I wondered if she had misunderstood.  After all, it was a kind of trick question I was asking her about racial identity.  But no, she did understand.  As far as she was concerned, the black girl looked like her but she did not look like the black girl.  And, in a funny way, it made perfectly good sense.  It’s OK for the black girl to look like her; but not for her to look like the black girl.

  So who is responsible for this crazy conundrum?  Was this just an exceptional case of a little child confused by the fool-fool questions of a nosy adult? Or were the little girl’s curious answers a sign of our collective paranoia about race in Jamaica?  How does our national motto complexify the problem, as the Americans say?  Oh, yes!  If you can simplify, it’s perfectly logical to complexify.

Skewed against blackness

In 1969, a two-dollar bill was issued when Jamaica changed from sterling currency.  Two Jamaican dollars then had real value, worthy of the paper on which the note was printed.  These days, two dala kyaan buy notn.  The bill is no longer in circulation.  It’s been replaced by practically worthless coins.

On the back of the two-dollar bank note, there was a now-famous photograph of 11 children who were supposed to illustrate the national motto.  These same children, frozen in time, have reappeared to grace the back of the 2012 commemorative bank notes.  Of course, I have nothing against these innocent children, now hard-back adults.  What fascinates me is the racial ideology of the times that resulted in a distorted representation of the face of Jamaica. Regrettably, that legacy lives on.

The obvious problem with that lingering ‘Out of Many, One People’ photograph is that it’s skewed against blackness.  If you were to stage a photograph today that accurately represents the distribution of the races in Jamaica, you would have to have at least one hundred children in the sample. That’s the only way you could get a whole Chinese, Indian and white child in the frame. You would end up with 90 black children, 7 mixed-race, 1 Chinese, 1 Indian and 1 white.  Quite a different picture!

Randomly selected?

A Flair Magazine article published on August 7, 2000 tells the story of the snapshot of the ‘two-dollar’ children:  “Eleven boys and girls from Central Branch Primary on Slipe Pen Road, were randomly selected for the picture.

Of the eleven, four are Blacks, one Chinese and one of Chinese and Black mixture. Three are Indians or of Indian and Black ancestry and two appear to be White or Syrian in descent”.

Randomly selected?  Hardly likely.  Jamaica is not Trinidad and Tobago.  I would bet my last dollar that a random selection of students at the Central Branch Primary School, even in 1961 when the photo was taken, would look quite different from this colour-coordinated cluster.  They would be much more uniformly black, as in the photograph of the children on the huge commemorative banner now outside the gates of Jamaica House.

The anonymous author of the Flair article does disclose that the students were not randomly selected after all: “Former principal of the school, Mrs. Elorine Walker said that when she got the request for the students, she had no idea what the picture would be used for, but had hand-picked a few students for the occasion”.

Passing for Black

Hand-picking continues today in our advertising industry.  But it really doesn’t bother me too much if private-sector firms handpick exclusively ‘Out of Many, One’ models to advertise their products and services.  All that means is that they don’t expect me to patronise them.  But when public-sector entities discriminate against black people in their advertising, that’s a whole other business.

Almost 17 years ago, I wrote a column on Air Jamaica’s infamous ‘Out of Many, One People’ billboard which featured a grouping of eight children who looked even less representative than those on the two-dollar note. My immediate reaction was, ‘But them don’t have any black children in this picture!’  I called Air Jamaica’s public-relations department and got the name of the agency that had developed the ad.

I was invited to have a look at the artwork that had been sent to the manufacturer of the billboard.  To be fair, two of the eight children could pass for black.  Just barely.  But by the time the image got transferred to the billboard format, the melanin had been bleached out of them.  All eight children had blended into out-of-oneness.  And the problem was much bigger than Air Jamaica.

The original photograph had come from the Jamaica Tourist Board.  Whose conception of Jamaican identity resulted in the decision to market our country in this colour-coded way?  Why are we still rubbing out black people from the big picture?  Or, at best, downplaying blackness?  Which Jamaica are we selling?  And who to?

No wonder that little girl sitting next to me on the flight from Miami couldn’t see herself as black. Her self-concept was quite high in Jamaican terms, however delusional.  She had already learned that being brown was better than being black. And our advertising industry keeps on reinforcing that point. If we’re not careful, black identity in Jamaica will go the way of the two-dollar bill.