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.

Perkins, Seaga and the Mongrel: Last Part

C: Mr Perkins, why yu don’t listen mi, boss? Me woulda never like fi have yu inna my class, yu know, yu woulda get pure ‘F’.

P: But you came to me, ma’am, with a whole long dictionary definition of mongrel

C: Never like have yu inna my literature class.  Pure ‘F’. Because yu don’t listen.

P: Yes.

C:  And you cannot converse.

P: What does mongrel mean? What it mean?

C: Mr. Perkins, mongrel mean whole heap a different thing. Mi a go chat

P: Heh, heh!

C: to yu inna patwa now becau

P: But you came to me with a, you came to me with a long dictionary definition.

C: Mr. Patterson. Hear me, “Mr. Patterson”

P: You’ve abandoned that?

C: Mi a call yu “Seaga”, mi a call yu “Mr. Patterson”

P: Have you abandoned, have you abandoned the dictionary, have you abandoned the dictionary definitions you came with?

C: No!  Listen!

P: So a mongrel, the primary meaning of mongrel

C: Is a dog

P: Is a dog of no

C: Come from nowhere, low-class dog a mongrel.

P: No, no, no! It didn’t say low-class. It didn’t say low-class. I happen to know

C: Of no definable breed

P: No, hold on little!

C: Wait nuh!

P: I happen to know, listen to me for a moment, I happen to know something about dogs.

C: Yes, I don’t like dogs. Mek mi tell yu dat.

P: You don’t like dogs?

C: Me don’t like mongrel dog.

P: I am very fond of dogs and I have kept a lot of dogs in my time.

C: Mr. Perkins, me feel seh dog must stay out a yard.

P: And I can tell you, ma’am, hold on little bit,

C: I don’t have dog inna mi bed and dem tings.

P: Hold on little bit, I can tell you that a good dog, as I would define it,

C: Is a mongrel.

P: No, no, no, no! Has nothing to do with whether the dog is a mongrel. OK? You have mongrels that are first-class dogs. If you’re talking about watchdogs.

C: So Mr. Seaga meant a compliment to the PNP when he said

P: No, no, no, no! No, no, no, no!

C: So wat yu bring up dis eedyat argument for now?

P: You are telling me that a mongrel is a low-class, wutliss dog. That is not true. There are mongrels that are damn good dogs. OK? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!  As anybody who keeps dogs will be able to tell you.

C: Yu know, mi meet a man on the road with a dog an mi seh, “Bwoy, yu out wid you mongrel.” An di man laugh; im seh, “My mongrel get training, you know. My mongrel a no ordinary mongrel.”

P: Absolutely! Absolutely!

C: OK? So we agree that mongrel can get training.

P: Man! And them can be good, too.

C: But what I’m saying

P: You go in – some people have mongrel in dem yard yu can’t go in there.

Edward Seaga

C:  This is it. But what I’m saying now, Mr. Perkins, is that Mr. Seaga never mean mongrel in any positive way, so this is a idle argument. If you were writing a essay now, mi woulda just cross out dat an

P: Me know yu woulda cross out all kind a thing, but what you would cross out don’t mean nothing.

C: It is irrelevant.

P: So you tell me.

C: It is irrelevant.

P: What Mr., what you understand Mr. Seaga to mean.

C: Yes. And you are asking me what im mean. How could I tell you what im mean? What I’m saying is

P: But then what are we arguing about if you don’t know what he means? What yu arguing about?

C: What I’m arguing about is perception of what he meant.

P: What is your perception of what he meant?

C: The perception out there, from people I’ve been talking to

P: No, I’m talking about your perception.

C: My perception?

P: Your perception.

C: When I heard the thing in the market Saturday morning, last week Saturday morning, I said to myself, “What? Im seh dat? No, man, im coulda never seh dat.”

P: What did you understand him to mean?

C: What I understood him to be saying was that the high-class PNP done wid an yu only have bad-breed dog a run it.

P: Bad breed, bad breed dog a run it.

C: Yes, that is what I understood.  And that is what a whole heap of people also understood.

P: Bad breed, bad breed, bad breed dog. You think he meant dog. We’re back with the literal meaning. You think he was talking about dogs.

C: No, I’m saying that, even when I’m saying bad breed dog, that is still a symbolic meaning. He’s saying that the PNP now is

P: Run by a bad breed dog.

C: Come een like a bad breed dog party.

P: Not a pure bred dog. A bad breed, mix up dog.

C: And now this is where I’m saying that the language thing is so complicated

P: But what you say, hold on, hold on little bit

Norman Manley

C: The Manleys were mongrel.

P: The Manleys are mongrel.

C: Mongrel in the racial sense. OK? So that is where now, in a sense, Mr. Seaga’s metaphors got mixed up. In the interpretation.

P: Oh, you are assuming. You are assuming. Hold on little bit. Hold on little bit. You as a teacher, hold on, you as a university teacher of language

C: Literature, man

P: Or of language and literature

C: Because language is literal and symbolic

P: Absolutely. You as a university teacher of language and literature and language hear what a man says and you are interpreting what he says by first assuming that he did not mean to say what he actually did say. He meant something else.

C: No, no!  I am not

P: But, but, but, hold on little bit now. The man used the word mongrel and you are telling me that im use the wrong word. That’s not the word im shoulda use, it shoulda  be something else. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

C: Mr. Perkins, yu know, in debating yu know wat dem call that? A straw man.

P: Hold on little bit. A what?

C: A straw man. And then you beat it down and you say, “Bwoy, look how mi bad!  Mi lick down di man.”

P: No, no! But you – let tell you something, ma’am.

C: Stop tell lie pon me.

P: No, let me tell you something. Let me tell you something.

C: Yu ask me how I get to it, me personally.

P: No, hold on a little for me. Hold on little bit for me. This is entertaining. Hold on.

[commercial break]

P: Thank you very much. We’re back here with you ma’am.

C: Mr. P? First question. Yu ever hear of the word paradox?

P: Yes.

C: Alright. That is one of the words we literature people deal with. Let me – yu know me like the dictionary because, yu know, it tell yu wat people tink the word mean over time and it can change up; but is useful. Listen to what a paradox is: “a statement seemingly self-contradictory or absurd though possibly well-founded or essentially true”. Now I’m going to apply paradox to my understanding of Mr. Seaga’s use of mongrel.

P: You first have got to establish that Mr. Seaga, that there was some reason for thinking that Mr. Seaga intended paradox.

C: No, Mr. Perkins.

P: We are trying to devise what Mr. Seaga meant. Or what reasonable construction can be put upon what Mr. Seaga said.

C: Mr. Perkins, I am not trying to say that Mr. Seaga’s statement was paradoxical. I am using paradox to explain my interpretation of what he said.

P: I follow you. Alright. Go ahead. Let’s hear it.

C: I don’t know what Mr Seaga meant.

P: You don’t know what Mr Seaga meant.

C: I don’t know what he meant.

P: So what are we arguing about?

C: Mr. Perkins, communication

P: Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

C: is a two-way process.

P: Yes ma’am.

C: What, you might say something, it is what is said and what is received. And what happens in miscommunication like what has been happening to us now, when me don’t listen and you don’t listen, is that the sender send out the message and me receive it wrongly. I don’t know what message Mr Seaga intended to send out. I am just telling you now how

P: You don’t think that, hold on, you don’t think that you ought to owe it to consider that? Before accusing him of making racist remarks. You don’t think you ought to consider what he meant before you go accusing him of making racist remarks?

C: You know what I’m going to ask you to do Mr. Perkins? Ask Mr. Seaga to come on tomorrow and explain what he meant and then we will have a three-way conversation.

P: No, no! I am asking you. You are telling me that you had no idea what he meant, but you have a long dissertation as to what he must have meant.

C: No, no! I am not saying that I don’t know what he meant, you know,

P: What are you saying, then?

C: Only. I’m not only saying I don’t know what he meant. I’m saying 1) I don’t know what he meant, but I’m going on to say I can tell you how what he said impacted on me and on other people. Let me be specific. When I went to the market I saw one of my friends. And, you know, I greeted her and said, “hi”.  She was talking to somebody else and she laughed and said, “the mongrels are holding discussions.” I said, “what you talking about?” Because I don’t know where I was I never hear about the mongrel business. And she said, Mr. Seaga had a speech at a party meeting which was on TV and he said the PNP now is not the PNP of Norman Manley and Michael Manley is a mongrel party. And she and this market lady were talking – in fact the lady go even so far as to seh, “mongrel? A monkey im a call we.” And I even had to say, “no man, how you get from mongrel to monkey?”  Then is afterwards I hear that there was some JLP ad wid some monkey or something which people felt was a reference to PJ being a black man.

P.J. Patterson

P: I didn’t see that.

C: Alright?

P: I don’t know anything about it.

C: So I get it, so I give it.

P: So the perception. But, hold on little bit now. Yu putting that out although yu didn’t see it yourself.

C: No.

P: You know anybody who saw it?

C: Yes.

P: Who saw it?

C: Yes. JLP ad with monkeys in it.

P: No, no, no! I thought you meant who saw Mr Seaga

C: The ad with the monkeys in it, no, no, no I never saw it. This lady just said to me she thought . . .  she gone from mongrel now to monkey. Alright. One of the issues that we are not really touching on at all, because I think it is central to the thing, is the whole question of the way in which blackness is perceived in Jamaican society. Because you get a paradox, see mi paradox here now, that racial purity, in the dictionary definition of mongrel is seen as something positive by white people. When dem mix up with other people is problem for dem. Although yu have black people now

P: Hold on, I’m not understanding you. Racial purity in the dictionary definition of mongrel

C: Yes!

P: What does that mean?

C: A mongrel is a person not of pure race. Pure race. If you have pure white you’re not a mongrel. And if you have pure black you’re not a mongrel. But if you mix-up you are a mongrel.

P: Yes. Alright.

Michael Manley

C: So this is the paradox I’m trying to get you to understand, in the way people respond.  What people were saying is that when Mr. Seaga says this party is not like Manley of old, the two Manleys, is a mongrel party

P: Yes, what he meant was that it was a pure black party.

C: Yes.

P: Pure black party.

C: Yes.

P: I follow you.

C: And then they go on to think, me too, language is emotive is not rational all the time.

P: In other words, in other words, he has so far departed from the dictionary definition of mongrel

C: Who, who has so far departed?

P: Mr. Seaga

C: No, he has not departed

P: That he’s using mongrel to mean not a mixed up person but a person of pure race. And that applies

C: No, no, Mr Perkins!

Ronnie Thwaites

P: not only to Mr. Patterson, hold on a moment nuh, it applies to Dr Peter Phillips, Dr Paul Robertson, to Bobby Pickersgill to Mr. Ronnie Thwaites to ahm ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, I don’t finish yet ahm, help me out nuh, give me some more

C: You mean other mixed race people?

P: Mr. K.D. Knight, Mr. ahm, come, give me some more, nuh.

C: Well, you remember this is why I have problems with racial categories.

P: I’m looking for all the purebred people in the party. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

C: You want to make what I’m saying absurd, but I know you have sense.

P: I’m not making it absurd, ma’am. But speaking of it, it is absurd.

C: You understand full well what I’m saying and a whole set of your listeners understand full well what I’m saying. I believe that, I’ve discovered that even some hardcore JLP people were vexed with the mongrel thing because they, too, began to feel that it is really black people the reference was to. But I don’t know. I’m not going to say Mr. Seaga was calling black people dog. I wouldn’t say that. He’s an anthropologist and he would know that yu call a man a dog, im going bite yu. But what I’m suggesting is that in the racial climate in Jamaica now where black people are very sensitive to a history of blackness being seen as negative, you understand, and mix-up brownings being seen as positive, when you have two browning leaders and you have a black leader and the leader of the Opposition says the party mash up now is mongrel, you can understand – but maybe you can’t understand because, you know, you not able to make the symbolic leap yet, you know, you ought to be able to understand

P: Not having been at the intellectual ghetto

C: Intellectual yes – because metaphor is a very intellectual thing. Although I shouldn’t say although – and, indeed – the intellectual ability of the Jamaican people around metaphor is evident in their proverbs.  Our proverbs. We use metaphor all the time for abstraction. Sorry fi mawga dog, mawga dog bite you.

P: Yes, yes, yes. So when people say, hold on little bit. When people use words like that mawga dog an dog ha too much master go to bed without, is people they calling dogs?

C: Of course. Is symbolic.

P: I see what you mean. They’re being disparaging of people. Calling them dogs. Black people. Black people.

C: Joan Andrea Hutchinson has a wonderful poem where she has a dog Rover quarrelling she no like how people dem just a use dog as insult an im well

P: And they’re being disparaging of black people.

C: A wonderful poem. For what Joan is doing is now reversing the cultural associations between dog and something negative that we see in the Oxford dictionary. Mongrel, applied to persons as a term of contempt. You understand?

P: You know, ma’am, I keep saying you know, I keep saying you know ma’am, the problems of this country, hold on little bit, the problems of this country, with all the violence that you hear going on in so-called ghettoes and inner city areas, right? That is not where the problems of this country lie, you know.

C: The problem is with the university, nuh.

Clovis Brown Cartoon

P: It lies in the intellectual ghetto. Yes. It lies among people like you.

C: How mi know yu were going to bad talk the university?

P: But how you mean? I must tell you plain and straight, who should be offering some kind of leadership. You went to university and you get an education and you study English literature and English language and instead of coming back to help people understand you are using your superior education to befuddle them. Right? And

C: Mr. P, yu know, anybody out there who listen to this conversation, a bet yu dem tell yu seh a yu a try mix up people, a no me! A bet yu anyting. Wi coulda do a poll. Mek one a dem

P: Look ma’am. Hold on little, I’m not in the business of winning votes.

C: No, mi nah look no vote, man. But mi a seh, you are trying to tell me now that me a mix up people.

P: No, I tell you something

C: Any pollster

P: What are you at the university, ma’am? What are you at the university?

C: What yu mean? I teach literature. I’m a normal, ordinary lickle teacher.

P: What are you? A lecturer?

C: Yes.

P: Or a professor?

C: No, mi no reach professor yet.

P: Yu no reach professor yet.

Erna Brodber teaching in Woodside

C: Mi only write one book. Mi need to write one more book. Mi writing a book right now on Dr. Erna Brodber. She is down in Woodside and she’s a brilliant analyst of Jamaican culture. Mi a write one book pon her now. So when mi done dat book mi wi go up fi professor. But mi no ready fi professor yet.

P: A follow you.

C: Mi a Senior Lecturer. Yu know, professor in waiting. Yu know, mi just a hold on. Yes. So wat yu ask me dat for now?

P: Because I wonder what would happen if I were to send copies of this tape around to universities of the world

C: Yes, what would happen?

P: What would they think of the University of the West Indies?

C: You would be surprised, you know. They might say that, “Bwoy, you have people, academics

P: What a brilliant set of people!

C: No, maybe what they would say is that imagine these poor academics, instead of marking their papers – mi have a whole heap of papers to mark, yu know – they are entering the public domain and trying to inject lickle sense into a very important medium, the talk show

P: I wouldn’t do it all the same, yu know. I wouldn’t do it.

C: Do it nuh, man!

P: I once

C: You wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t want

P: I once heard a discussion on an American television programme. Serious, serious discussion about black people being genetically disadvantaged. And I wouldn’t want to provide any evidence to support such a theory.

C: Oh, so you’re saying that I’m, so yu a call mi a mongrel?

P: Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!

C: Yu a call mi mongrel. Is alright.

P: It said something about their brains being too small.

C: Oh, yu know big brain have more sense than lickle brain?

P: Out of that brain, big or little, I don’t think much sense is coming.

C: Yu shouldn’t keep throwing word at UWI, yu know. We have produced some fine minds, yu know, doing well all over the world. Let me give you this joke.  One of my students, she was here for just one semester waiting to go to University of Florida, and I went up to University of Florida for a conference and she came to me and said “Dr Cooper, you can’t understand how I am upset.”

P: Dr Cooper!

Rex Nettleford

C: “Me leave UWI to come to Florida and I’m studying Caribbean Studies and is all you people’s books them teaching up here. Your book on my course. Dr. Chevannes’ book on my course, Prof. Nettleford. And I’m asking myself

P: Oh God!

C: why I left UWI to come to University of Florida when all the people are back at UWI.

P: Oh God! Poor

C: I had to laugh. The work that we’re doing, the scholarship is well recognized, you know.

P: OK, ma’am.

C: Mr. P., is only you keep knocking UWI.

P: Well, I’ll tell you something. If you will come here and talk nonsense like you’ve talked today, I have no choice.

C: Let me tell you.

P: You give me no choice. I would love to say wonderful things about the university.

C: And Mr. P., you can’t use me as the standard, you know.

P: Ah! I see. Alright. Oh, I see. So, OK.

C: I could be one of the last dunce people leave at UWI that don’t weed out yet. You can’t judge the whole institution off me, man. That’s not fair.

P: I see what you mean. Alright. Maybe that isn’t fair.

C: We can’t judge the value of your programme off this one conversation that we’ve had. That no fair. But sometimes yu come good, yu know.

P: Yes, yes, yes.

C: I don’t listen to yu all the time. But every now and then mi catch yu and sometimes mi hear yu wid dem bad breed people and yu a try wid dem. Mi no seh yu bad all the time, but mi can’t manage di whole heap a contention and di way yu like fi laugh after people.

P: A follow you.

C: There is good in the worst of us.

P: I see. I’m sure. I’m sure, ma’am.

C: Even UWI.

P: You keep searching for it in you, yah. Keep searching. Don’t lose faith. Alright. Thank you very much. All the best to you.

C: And to you, mi dear.

P: Have a wonderful new year.

C: Thank you, man.

P: Well that brings us to the end of “Perkins on Line” for today. We’ll be back tomorrow at the usual time and in the usual place and we look forward to your company.

Looking for Hot Sex (and Romance)

Sperm and egg

Desperate situations require equally desperate measures.  Two Mondays ago, I discovered that one of my courses in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona was at risk of being cancelled because of low enrolment.  I took immediate action.

I designed an ad with the seductive headline, ‘Looking for hot sex?’ Romance appeared on the second line in small print and in brackets. It wasn’t quite an afterthought.  But it didn’t get top billing. Sex was definitely the ‘grabber.’   Everybody knows that sex sells:  alcohol, cars, medicine, insurance, pet food, airline tickets, toilet paper – just about everything.  So why not literature, the mother of all advertising stories?

To be honest, this wasn’t a case of bait-and-switch:  appealing to fiery passion and delivering cold reason.  There was a lot of both sex and romance in the required texts for the course, African/Diaspora Women’s Narrative. I simply highlighted some of the ‘hot’ issues in the books.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s novel, Tar Baby, was hyped in this way: “A ‘high-colour’ fashion model in Paris swops her white lover for a black man.”  This was the hook for Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel, Changes:  “A Ghanaian woman divorces her insecure husband and becomes the second wife of a sexy, polygamous Muslim.”

“The widow of an upwardly mobile African-American man remembers their passionate lovemaking”.  That’s how Paule Marshall’s novel, Praisesong for the Widow, was marketed. The most difficult book on the course, Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home, written by Erna Brodber, was undressed to bare essentials: “A Jamaican woman falls in love with a black militant, loses her head and finds her culture.”

Tsitsi Dangarembga

The tag line for Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy came as easily as the heroine: “An upright young woman from the Caribbean searches for hot sex in urban America.”  The only book in which the main character was too young to be having sex was Nervous Conditions, written by the Zimbabwean novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga.  So instead of focusing on sex, I highlighted sexism.  Not entirely unrelated but not quite the same.

Selling literary sex toys

By the end of the week, the number of students registered in the course more than doubled and we were good to go. And they kept on coming.  The number tripled last week. I’m not claiming that my unorthodox advertising campaign was the only reason for the dramatic increase.   Students often register late.  But sexy marketing couldn’t have hurt.

The department secretary, Mr. Doniq Salmon, reported that, as he was putting up flyers, he was almost run over by eager students wanting to see what it was all about.  One of them thought we were selling sex toys!   Interestingly, what the ad revealed was just how prudish Jamaican society really is – even in the supposedly liberal environment of a university.

One of my male colleagues confessed that the ad did catch his attention but he hadn’t wanted anyone to see him reading it in the open. After all, he was a respectable married man, presumably getting hot sex and romance at home.  He was delighted to find the ad on another notice board in a less public location that allowed him to satisfy his desire to read it in relative privacy.  He was most amused, and, perhaps, disappointed to see that it was only an ad for my course.

Flyers put up in the immediate vicinity of the Faculty Office kept on being taken down; not by uptight censors, I hope.  The Head of Department, Dr. Nadi Edwards, teasingly chastised me for bringing literature into disrepute. All the same, he was quite pleased that the course didn’t have to be cancelled and conceded that the sexy ad must have been enticing.

Afraid of feminism

In the 1980s when feminism was still a hot topic, that course on fiction written by African, African-American and Caribbean women routinely attracted well over a hundred students.  These days, many young women are afraid of feminism.  They think that being feminist means they won’t get a man.

But feminism is not about rejecting men.  It’s a challenge to patriarchy, that oppressive system which imprisons both men and women in rigidly defined gender roles.  And many young men are cautious about studying literature – especially feminist literature – for fear they will be seen as ‘soft’.  That’s one of those crippling gender stereotypes:  literature is not a ‘manly’ subject.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just my course that was in trouble.  For the last five years we’ve seen an ominous decline in course registrations in the Department of Literatures in English.  Several factors account for this falling off.  For one, tuition fees have gone up. And students are also worried that they won’t get jobs after investing in university education.

On top of that, there’s been a significant reduction in the number of high school students doing literature up to CXC level, even worse, CAPE. So the pool of qualified candidates for tertiary programmes is drying up.  I think the Ministry of Education needs to consider making both English language and English literature compulsory subjects for all high school students.  They do make a very good pair.

Jamaica Library Service event

One of the best ways of developing English language skills is to read literature. Stories, poems and plays teach the nuances of a language in a most entertaining way.  I have to thank the Jamaica Library Service for the bookmobile that came to my neighbourhood twice per month when I was a teenager.  I got four books at a time and read with relish.

Of course, studying literature is not just about learning the mechanics of a language.  Literature is an exciting gateway to many worlds – real and imagined.  We really shouldn’t have to resort to sex to sell that idea.